A Visit to Kasuga Shrine (Nara Park, Japan)

Kasuga Grand Shrine (Kasuga Taisha), is one of Japan’s most important, and popular, Shinto shrines. Originally established in 768, the shrine acquired special notoriety and status in 965, when Emperor Murokami began sending imperial messengers to the shrine to report and seek the patron kami’s advice on affairs of state.

Over the next few weeks, my Monday posts will take you on a tour of Kasuga Taisha, and share a little about it’s history and the role it plays in Japanese culture. (All of the photos are mine, and were taken during my research trip to Japan in June, 2015.)

Kasuga Taisha lies in the heart of Nara Park, home to numerous shrines and Buddhist temples, as well as 1200 sika (deer) that, although no longer legally considered sacred objects, still enjoy protected status and have no fear of visitors. (For more about the deer, and photos of their shenanigans, click here.)

16G24 deer

The approach to Kasuga Taisha lies along a wooded path that runs almost half a mile from the nearest road (conveniently, a city bus stop sits immediately beside the start of the path, making it easy for foreign visitors to find):

16G24 Kasuga path with lanterns

Near the start of the path, you’ll notice a few stone lanterns standing along the edge of the gravel road.

16G24 Kasuga Lanterns

As you walk, the lanterns become more numerous.

16G24 Kasuga path with deer

Kasuga Taisha is actually famous for its lanterns–tōrō in Japanese. Thousands of them line the paths and hang from the eaves within the shrine, including some of the oldest extant tōrō in Japan.

A crow met me near the sign announcing the entrance to Kasuga Taisha – in Japanese, a good omen, because the eight-span crow is considered a messenger of the kami (gods, or divine beings).

16G24 Kasuga entrance with crow

Sub-shrines are common at Shinto holy sites; in addition to the primary altars and buildings dedicated to the patron kami, Shinto shrines often feature smaller sub-shrines dedicated to other kami (and not always lesser gods – sometimes, the sub-shrines honor stronger deities than the primary ones enshrined at the main shrine altar – however, at Kasuga Taisha, most of the sub-shrines are for lesser kami).

16G24 Kasuga Taisha sub-shrine

Like many Shinto shrines, the “final approach” to Kasuga Taisha features a line of small shops selling food, drinks, and souvenirs. Although the shops are fewer, and the offerings less elaborate here than at some shrines and temples in Japan, these shops do sell “deer crackers” (“Not tasty for humans. For Deer Only.”), so the sacred sika hang around in hopes of a treat.

16G24 Kasuga entrance (torii)

To the left side of the path as you approach the entrance to the shrine, a deer-shaped fountain provides a place for visitors to purify themselves in accordance with Shinto custom. (The ritual, which I’ll blog about another time, involves a ritual rinsing of the hands and mouth.)

16G21 Deer fountain

Beyond the fountain the path slopes upward and a pair of staircases lead to the main gates of the shrine. One staircase leads up to the left of the entrance:

16G24 kasuga entry stairs

Providing a sideways view of the entry gates:

16G24 Kasuga (side entrance)

While the other, more crowded path leads directly to the gates:

16G24 Kasuga Taisha gates

Like many Japanese shrines and temples, Kasuga Taisha’s size makes it difficult to get a good close-up image of the gates (they overfill the frame) – and the hundreds of lanterns lining the path make it difficult to get a photograph from a decent distance.

16G24 Main gates Kasuga Taisha


Through these gates lie the shrine’s major buildings and sacred sites…and I hope you’ll join me next Monday, when we continue our journey inside the gates! 

Have you visited Kasuga Taisha, or any other Shinto shrine? What did you think of the experience?

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The Purification Deer at Japan’s Kasuga Shrine

I took today’s photo near the entrance to Kasuga Taisha (Shrine), in Nara, Japan.

16G21 Deer fountain

Purification fountains sit near the entrance to Shinto shrines, providing a place for worshippers and visitors to ritually purify their hands and mouths (by rinsing) before entering the shrine. Many of these fountains are simple and natural, a stone basin fed by a stream or a bamboo fountain. The fountain outside Kasuga Taisha emerges from a bamboo “pipe” in the mouth of a deer, no doubt a reference to the sacred deer that inhabit Nara park. 

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Photo Copyrights, and the Importance of Shooting B Roll

When it comes to the type of images a writer might need for a blog or online article, the sky’s the limit.

16G19 B Roll

The problem is, where do you get a picture of clouds that doesn’t violate someone else’s copyright?

Copyright attaches to photographs at the time of creation, and belongs to the photographer who shot the image (or, in some cases, the client who hired the photographer to create works for hire). You cannot use someone else’s image without a license, unless the image is released into the public domain–and you must be able to prove that status.

In other words: you cannot simply pull someone else’s photographs from the Internet and use them, even on a blog that earns no money.

So what’s an author-blogger to do?

Some authors subscribe to paid photography services that give access to image libraries. For a fee (and, in some cases, for free on a more limited basis) authors can use the images in these libraries for book covers, blogs, and other creative endeavors. Some services work on a “pay as you go” basis, licensing individual images, while others allow authors to pay a monthly (or annual) fee for unlimited image use.

Some authors use only images they can confirm have entered the public domain, either due to copyright expiration or copyright release by the photographer or copyright owner. Once an image has entered the public domain, it’s free to use and it isn’t copyright infringement to use it for blogs, book covers, and other creative works. The U.S. Library of Congress has an extensive collection of images, many of which are in the public domain and thus completely free to download and use. (Here’s a link to their Japanese collection.) 

However, beware of websites that state their image collections are public domain. Some are legitimate, but others may contain stolen or copyright-infringing images uploaded accidentally (or, in rare cases, on purpose by devious individuals wanting to cause trouble). When in doubt, don’t use the image. You will be legally liable for copyright infringement even if the infringement was accidental.

The best solution of all is to create the images yourself. Most people have a mobile device that includes a camera function. When out and about, take photographs of everything from rocks to flowers to automobiles (be sure to blur any license plates you capture – or, better still, take photos where the license plate doesn’t show).

You also need to be careful when photographing people–rights of privacy/rights of publicity often apply to the use of people’s images, and you generally can’t use recognizable people’s images for your personal profit without their consent. For that reason, many bloggers (including me!) blur the faces of recognizable strangers who appear in their pictures — because consent to use their images has not been obtained. When taking photos, avoid photographing people or blur their images if you want to be entirely safe.

I refer to this habit of taking photos of various objects and places as “shooting my own B roll” – and it’s a habit every author and blogger should adopt.

In film and television, camera crews shoot a combination of “A roll” – the scenes involving the actors, hosts, or primary subjects of the film or television program – and “B roll” – still and moving shots of background, interesting objects, and other items that are used in post-production to enhance the film, as well as for bumpers and introductory scenes.

By shooting your own B roll when you’re out and about, you’re establishing a photo library of images you own, which you can use for any and every purpose, from cover art to blogging and beyond.

Need a coffee mug for a post on your favorite morning beverage?

16B19 Coffee mug


Writing a blog about stopping to smell the flowers? The B(ee) roll can help there, too:

16G19 Bee

Don’t limit your photographs to family functions, historical sites and lovely landscapes–though they’re certainly useful too. Start photographing that B-roll now. It won’t take long to build a photo library all your own.

16B19 happy bowl

Like this bowl, you’ll be glad you did.

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A New Giveaway of The Ninja’s Daughter!

Want to win THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER before the book releases?

I’m sponsoring a Goodreads giveaway from now until July 31 – and five random entrants will win a signed trade paperback copy of my newest Hiro Hattori novel, THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER, which releases from Seventh Street Books on August 2. To enter, click the giveaway details link below. No purchase necessary to win. Good luck!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Ninja's Daughter by Susan Spann

The Ninja’s Daughter

by Susan Spann

Giveaway ends July 31, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

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To the Summit of Mt. Inari

This week marks the final installment in my blogging “trip” to Fushimi Inari Shrine, which means today, we finally reach the summit.

After leaving the mid-mountain station where I stopped for lunch and to wait out a passing rain shower (June is the rainy season in Kyoto) I continued up the mountain.

On the upper slopes of Mount Inari, the torii tend to be farther apart, and the stairs shift between fairly steep:

16G17 Up some more

and gently sloping rises: 

16G17 FI stairs up

Occasionally, you also see older torii, made of stone.

16G17 Low stairs up Mt Inari

While I don’t know the exact age of these gates, the weathering suggests they’re far older than the others that line the mountain. (Hardly surprising; Fushimi Inari Taisha has existed on this spot since 816, and though the main shrine building was not constructed until the 15th century many of the original structures on Mt. Inari predated it.) 

A sign and map marks the mountain’s peak, home of shrine’s most sacred altar. 

16G17 FI Ichinomine

Beyond it, one final set of stairs leads up to the altar and surrounding shrine:

Fushimi Inari Summit

Behind the roof and altar stands a sacred boulder inscribed with the kami‘s name and hung with sacred ropes. While I’d love to share a photograph, I try not to capture (or share) any images that might hurt or offend practitioners of the Shinto faith, so the “holy of holies” will have to remain in your imagination. Or, if you really want to see it, visit Mount Inari and make the climb. 

Like every mountain, a climb up Mt. Inari only gets you halfway to your goal, so after spending some time at the peak I started the climb back down the mountain (taking the other side of the circular path to the summit, so I could see the entire mountain instead of just once side).

16G17 Inari Descent

It took me a little under 90 minutes to reach the bottom. I found myself moving slowly, and not only because the rain had made some portions of the path a little slick.

Fushimi Inari’s beauty and power moved me in ways I hadn’t anticipated, and I didn’t want my experience on the mountain to be over. I took my time, appreciating the sight and smell of the trees, the beautiful sub-shrines, and the knowing looks on the faces of the  statues that line the mountain’s paths, watching over the shrine and every visitor.

16G17 Inari fox at summit

By the time I reached the bottom, I really didn’t want to leave–an experience many friends who have climbed the mountain seem to share. However, I took comfort in the knowledge that I would return to Japan, and to Kyoto … and that when I did, Fushimi Inari would be waiting. 

16G17 Lion dog on Mt Inari

As it turns out, I’m planning another trip to the mountain this October, when the leaves are changing colors. Hopefully, I’ll be able to share another side of Inari’s most important shrine when I come home this fall!

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On Choosing a Seahorse

Many people don’t realize that there are over 40 different species of seahorses, ranging in size from half an inch to almost a foot in length.

I keep Hippocampus erectus, the lined seahorse, which averages 6-8 inches in length at maturity and tends to be one of the hardier (read: easier to keep) seahorse species. H. erectus can also be bred entirely in captivity, meaning my seahorses don’t reduce or threaten wild populations in any way.

16G12 Weeble

All seahorses belong to the Syngnathid family (as do pipefish and the larger leafy and weedy sea dragons), but the needs and status of the species vary widely–some are endangered, others threatened, and all are difficult to keep in a home aquarium environment. (Note: some species are also illegal to keep in a home aquarium.)

Before bringing seahorses home, it’s wise to research the species’ requirements, including acceptable tank mates (fish, invertebrate, and coral) and make sure you can offer not just an acceptable home but one designed to meet the seahorses’ special needs. Something else to consider: seahorses tend to fall sick and die more quickly when kept with other seahorse species . . . so plan your reef around a single syngnathid species rather than trying to bring different species together if you want to have a long-term relationship with your seahorse pets.

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Stopping for Lunch on a Sacred Mountain (Fushimi Inari Shrine)

Today we continue our trip up Mount Inari, the sacred mountain that forms the centerpiece of Fushimi Inari Taisha (Japan’s largest, and most important, Inari shrine).*

16G11 FI Stairs to station

The climb up Mount Inari takes 1-3 hours, depending how quickly you take the stairs and whether or not you stop for lunch at one of the 19 “stations” interspersed along the roughly circular route. (If you choose, you can take one path to the top and come down the other side of the circle, which means you see both sides of the mountain and without having to retrace your steps.)

16G11 FI Substation

Some of the stations (which also feature sub-shrines and places for worshippers to make offerings to Inari) have better views than others, so if you’re planning to stop, keep that in mind.

One of the larger sub-shrines sits about halfway up the mountain, and features a large sub-shrine and altar as well as a snack shop and a traditional sit-down restaurant. 

16G11 restaurant on Inari

Built in the classical Japanese style, the restaurant features low tables with cushions atop a raised dais (no shoes on the table level) and a spectacular 180-degree view of Kyoto. Here’s the view from my table:

16G11 View from Restaurant

The restaurant doesn’t offer an English-language menu, but (like many Japanese eateries) the menu does feature color photographs of every offering, making it fairly easy for guests to select a meal. I chose the local specialty: Inari-zushi (sometimes written “Inari sushi”), a dish reputed to be one of Inari’s personal favorites, and also a favorite of the kitsune and foxes who serve as messengers to the god.

16G11 Inari Sushi Lunch

Traditional Inarizushi consists of sweetened sushi rice mixed with black sesame, rolled in deep-fried tofu skin. It’s one of my favorite Japanese dishes, and the variety served on Mount Inari was–unsurprisingly–spectacular.

16G11 Inarizushi

The deep green beverage beside my plate is a glass of sweetened, iced matcha (essentially green tea, but made from powdered leaves as opposed to the steeped variety). It’s delicious and very refreshing on a humid summer day.

16G11 Iced Matcha

While eating, I enjoyed the view of Kyoto through one set of windows, while on the other side I watched a steady stream of visitors passing through the sub-shrine station. Delicious food, a steady breeze, and plenty to watch made this one of my favorite lunch experiences in Kyoto.

Halfway up Mt. Inari

After the meal, I continued up the slope toward the peak of Mount Inari, and the sacred shrine that sits at the very top.

16G11 Leaving Station


I hope you’ll join me next Monday for the final steps to the summit!

And if you ever find yourself in Kyoto, I hope you’ll take the time to visit Mount Inari and experience the mountain for yourself–it’s truly a special place to see.

*If you want to walk the path from the beginning, the other posts in the series are:

A Visit to Fushimi Inari Taisha

Starting Up the Mountain at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Climbing the Lower Slopes of Mount Inari

The Cats of Fushimi Inari Shrine

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The Cats of Fushimi Inari Shrine

In Japanese culture, cats are frequently seen as “lucky,” (in fact, the popular “waving cat” or maneki-neko is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the “lucky cat”). Their presence at shrines is often considered lucky, too, and it’s common to see a cat or kitten strolling around at quite a few of Japan’s sacred sites.

In this, Fushimi Inari Taisha (shrine), located south of Kyoto, is no exception.

While climbing Fushimi Inari a couple of years ago, my son encountered an adult cat that appeared from the forest and paused in front of him on the path, considering him for a moment before continuing calmly on its way. When he related the encounter to a Japanese woman later on, she told him the cat was probably a messenger of Inari–perhaps even a kitsune (fox spirit) in disguise.

Kitsune or not, the cat made quite an impression, and my son recalls it as a special moment on Mount Inari.

During my own first trip up Fushimi Inari Shrine in the summer of 2015, I encountered a cat as well.

While hiking up the torii-lined path to the top of the mountain, I stopped at one of the many sub-shrine stations for a rest and something to drink. (Several of these stations have small stores that sell snacks and beverages for visitors as well as offerings to leave for Inari. Some have full restaurants as well – and I’ll share my experience with one of those next Monday here on the blog.)  

Outside the tiny shop, I noticed a tiny kitten sleeping on top of a wooden wall:

16G05 Kitten at FI

A number of other visitors noticed the sleepy little guy as well, and tried to get his attention–but he ignored us. He looked up once, and didn’t seem frightened; we just didn’t hold as much interest for him as his afternoon nap.   

The kitten was clearly well-fed, and had the quiet, contented attitude of a pet. Most likely, he belongs to the owners of the little shop (who seem to have living quarters on the second floor). I have to admit, I was a little jealous of him, living a peaceful life high on one of Japan’s most sacred mountains.

Have you ever spotted cats in lovely but unexpected places? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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A Dragon Surprise at Fushimi Inari

Many Japanese shrines have sub-shrines dedicated to kami (gods or divinities) other than the shrine’s primary patron.

Fushimi Inari is no exception.

Partway up the mountain, a narrow path branches off the primary trail–if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss. If you follow the path a little way through the bamboo forest, you reach a shrine dedicated to Japan’s guardian dragons (ryu), where I saw this lovely statue:

16G07 Dragon Ball

I’ll share more about the statute, and the shrine, in a post next week.

One of my favorite parts of exploring foreign lands, and even unusual places closer to home, is the wonderful, unexpected things you find if you keep your eyes open and stay willing to travel off the beaten path.

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Why Male Seahorses Seem More Shy

Over the years, I’ve discovered that my male seahorses tend to be more shy, and more likely to hide, than the females.

16D16 Moya and Magellan 2


This isn’t a unique observation, incidentally. Seahorse keepers and scientists have recognized that male seahorses are often more retiring and more likely to hide than their female counterparts, most likely because, in seahorses, the male broods and gives birth to the young. (Seahorses are one of the few species in which the male experiences a true pregnancy.)

For this reason, male seahorses often feel the need to hide, to protect their current or future broods.

My current male seahorse, Moya, is a great example of male seahorse shyness. Where my other seahorses spend time “out and about,” swimming around the reef and hitching to various corals (particularly sea fans), Moya spends almost all of his time in one of two places:

Hiding in a cave near the bottom of the reef,

16G05 Moya

Or hiding under a kenya tree coral in the upper left corner of the reef, near the back of the tank:

16G05 Moya and kenya tree

Both of these spots are “hidden” enough that Moya believes he can’t be seen by me or anyone else who approaches the tank. From a seahorse perspective, they’re “safe,” and although he’s glad to have the other seahorses join him there, he rarely joins them elsewhere on the reef while the lights are on.

Late at night, when the lights go out, he often joins the rest of the herd on a gorgonian (sea fan) cluster with room for all three seahorses to sleep together–but the moment the lights come on in the morning–and often even before that–he returns to the safety of his favorite cave.

16G05 Moya 2

Have you ever noticed seahorses hiding, either in an aquarium or in the wild? 

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